Behind the Headlines: Clinton’s Nominee for U.N. Seen As a ‘friend of Israel’

President Clinton’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has a reputation as a committed internationalist, a friend of Israel and a consensus-builder.

Indeed, Jewish constituents, organizational leaders and those who have worked or served with Bill Richardson on Capitol Hill respond with accolades at the mention of his name and his recent appointment.

They say the respect and credibility he has enjoyed in Congress for the past 14 years as a Democratic representative from New Mexico will help boost flagging U.S. support for the United Nations.

The United States owes more than $1 billion to the international body, but has resisted making payments until it institutes a host of reforms.

They also say Richardson’s successes as what The New York Times calls a “roving diplomatic troubleshooter” bode well for his new role.

“I think it is a good appointment and that he will serve us well,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who was sworn into Congress with Richardson, went with him to Israel shortly thereafter in 1983 and considers him a friend.

“He’s demonstrated patience and a talent for negotiations,” Berman said. “He’s relentless and pursues his agenda to the end.”

Berman and others note that when it came to organizing support for foreign aid among other Democrats, known in political lingo as “whipping the bill,” Richardson was “the key guy.”

“He was a leader in the Hispanic Caucus on foreign assistance and specifically on foreign assistance to Israel,” Berman said.

Richardson was the co-chairman of the Democratic Party Platform Committee in 1992 and, according to one well-placed source, was “instrumental in ensuring there was language supportive of Israel” in the final document.

His congressional votes over the years on foreign aid, strategic cooperation, arms sales and other items related to Israel show a consistent record of support for Israel.

They also indicate that he will likely be comfortable pursuing an active U.S. role in international affairs and be a bulwark against a U.N. predilection to politicize the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a private letter of June 9, 1996, he wrote, “United States leadership is essential to keep the risks associated with the new world order to a minimum. The Middle East is a particularly volatile region. Israel is a democratic friend to the United States, and an important ally.”

On an appearance on “The Capital Gang” television show Sept. 30, Richardson cautioned against exerting undue pressure on the Israeli government after an episode of violence was triggered by the opening of a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem.

“To squeeze right now, to threaten an important ally that is besieged, I think is counterproductive. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we can to get the peace process going,” he said.

“The best thing we can do now is gently push both sides forward. I think if we use a tourniquet now, especially since the process is so fragile — and also, with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, I mean he’s got to control his people, too. And the Middle East countries — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — they can’t keep fanning the flames, they need to find ways to be part of a constructive role in the process.”

A spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, said, “Richardson’s understanding that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is a fundamental cornerstone of U.S. policy has been a guide for him in Congress.

“He also made a special contribution helping to build coalitions between the Hispanic and Jewish communities.”

Richardson, 49, was born in California and grew up in Mexico City, where his father was a bank executive. His mother was Mexican and spoke Spanish to him.

He reportedly was on a short list for a Cabinet appointment in 1992. Since 1994, he has expanded his portfolio by becoming what the Washington Post recently dubbed “America’s unofficial emissary to the diplomatic underworld.”

This year alone, he has been sent to negotiate sensitive situations that more conventional diplomats may have eschewed, in Cuba, Kashmir, North Korea, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Peru and Sudan.

“He is not your cookie-cutter diplomat,” said a former staffer, who requested anonymity. “He’s very aware of other cultures and how they view America” and “is willing to talk to people many others aren’t willing to talk to.”

“He’s good at walking tightropes and difficult lines,” he said, adding: “On Israel, he was always willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.”

Michael Kraft, now a State Department official, worked with Richardson in the mid-1970s, when the congressman was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was deeply involved in elevating the issue of human rights.

Calling Richardson a respected as well as “haimishe guy,” Kraft remembers being with him during that period on his first trip to Israel to research counterterrorism measures.

On the second night of the trip, Richardson expressed some frustration after being served French food. He was eager to sample the local cuisine, said Kraft, who sees that as a metaphor for the congressman’s openness.

“He wanted to get a flavor of local culture,” Kraft said. He said Richardson “was also impressed by the uninhibited style and give and take” of the Israelis’ political discussions at one Friday night gathering.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called Richardson “a dedicated insider who was very helpful, especially on foreign aid.”

He noted the congressman’s “ability to build consensus,” which he said would stand him in good stead at the United Nations. Several people contacted in the Santa Fe area said Richardson had been a popular, accessible and responsive representative.

“He’s extremely popular,” said Ellen Biderman, an active synagogue member and co-director of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum. “People here are proud and thrilled for his appointment.”

“He has been available to the Jews of New Mexico,” she said. “He has been willing to listen to anything that is of concern.”

“I can’t say I agree with everything he has ever done on every issue,” Biderman added, “but it’s easy to disagree with him, to have a discussion with him.”

Jason Isaacson, the Washington-based director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said Richardson had “always been supportive of Israel and accessible to the Jewish community on a range of issues.”

But perhaps more important, he said, the U.N. ambassador-designate “will be charged with carrying out policies of an administration that has been, in every important respect, in sync with concerns of the Jewish community — on Israel, on the need for an active presence by the United States in international affairs, on human rights, and on the need to confront terrorism and rogue states.”

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